September 30, 2014 Sujeev Shakya

Restraining Privilege

On my flight from Doha to Kigali was a minister of the Rwandan government. He boarded the plane without fanfare and when he landed in Kigali, there was no one to receive him. Unlike in Nepal, there were no sycophants waiting for him. He cleared immigration and waited for his bags at baggage claim with a trolley that was brought by airport staff for all of us. He loaded his own bags, pushed his trolley to his vehicle in the parking lot, and drove away. No garlands, no media, no vehicles with flashing red lights, no security folks around him, and no escort vehicles. This led me to wonder if such a situation would ever arise in Nepal.

Then, back in my apartment, I was reading an article of how Robert Mugabe, the Zimbabwean president, conferred a PhD on his wife, Grace Mugabe, within four months of enrolment. This, I thought, may be Nepal’s future, as we are racing against time to drape bodies in the national flag and confer honour on all sorts of people. Yes, we love the culture of privilege where shortcuts rule.

Very Important Persons

In Bhutan, last year, after being elected prime minister, Tshering Tobgay shunned security and privileges. He did away with 20-plus personal security folk, does not travel in a motorcade, and rather, drives his electric car himself. He refused to move into the official residence, which has now been converted into a government guest house, and continues to live in his own residence. Relinquishing privileges is perhaps a personal issue and cannot possibly be enforced by legal provisions. However, to even conceive of such a thing in Nepal is tough.

A month ago, a Nepali minister spoke to an audience of writers and artists at the release of a magazine at a banquet hall of a five-star hotel with a guard standing behind him at all times. Throughout the event, I was wondering who the minister was threatened by amongst the audience that he needs a guard to look over his shoulders. Nepali programmes are filled with ugly looking sofas lined up in the front rows to seat Very Important Persons (VIPs). And the sight of people hustling to find one for themselves is comical. I am also equally amused  by those  who do not want to step down from the stage when a Powerpoint presentation is going on. They would rather not look at the presentation than get off stage, as doing so, for them, seems to imply losing all power.

Feudal Past

Maybe our demand for privileges emerges from our feudal culture and the days when proximity to the palace or the royal family gave one free access to airports, planes, hotels and everything people could think of. Vehicles used to be stopped for hours to facilitate the passing by of royal family members and ‘panchakanyas’ used to be kept without food or access to toilets for hours to welcome VIPs. Maybe, our yearning for privileges is influenced by India, which was once ruled by colonial powers who believed that they were a different breed who should enjoy a different set of privileges. A former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh in India, who grew up using public transport, after becoming chief minister, used to travel in a motorcade of over 40 vehicles each day to work, and a senior engineer of the municipality was assigned to ensure that the roads were washed before his motorcade. Akhilesh Yadav was dead set against such privileges.Therefore, when he became Chief Minister, he reduced the number of vehicles to 25!

In Nepal, I love the gamakka look on the faces ministers as their police escort vehicles drive them through traffic jams at the cost of wronging the public. People who grew up walking and using pubic transport, after getting to positions to power, suddenly want someone to open the door of their vehicles, have someone else clear the road for them, and another person clear the way as they walk. They do not know how to go back to their old selves. Perhaps this is one of the biggest reasons for abuse of authority—be it occupying government houses, offices, cars, positions, mobile phones, or electricity connections.

Every time there is a VIP movement, social media gets flooded with messages on inconveniences caused to the public. PM Sushil Koirala promised after his Myanmar trip that he would look into changing rules to ensure VIP movements are better managed. Even after many more trips, like many other promises, this promise remains unfulfilled. On the day of Bhoto Jatra, as I drove from Patan to Kathmandu, I saw hundreds of thirsty and hungry-looking young policemen and women lining the roads as the President made his annual trip to Jawalakhel to don the role of the former kings to see a vest being displayed. I wonder why this is still necessary.

Cultural Flaw

Privileges are a part of culture. So we cannot only blame politicians. Just observe drivers with blue number plate vehicles parking in areas that are generally restricted or numerous blue number plate vehicles of consul generals of different countries of the world. Businesspeople can often be noticed enjoying the privileges of a blue number plate and at times not shying away to fly various flag on these vehicles. No one is sure, which law gives them what privileges. But more and more, people are surely jumping on the bandwagon. Privileges begin at religious places, where people jump the queue. Then, it continues to educational institutions and hospitals.

Privileges are a cultural issue. It is culture that is one of the biggest impediments to the growth of both knowledge and the economy. Privilege is an anti-thesis to building a society based on merit.

The economic turn around in Rwanda is built on shunning such cultures of privileges—and many other countries are following suit. It is time for Nepal to really give it erious thought as well. VIPs should ask themselves, “Do I need a guard when I am giving a speech? Do I need to sit on a sofa in the front row? Do I need to stick to the stage? Do I need someone to open the door for me when I get down from the car? Do I want to get a free upgrade to business class without paying for it?”

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